14/12/2011 – When I looked out of the airplane window before landing in Juba, I noticed many huts in a semi-arid landscape and I was pleased to see that our local ECHO office had organized a reception committee to welcome us. When we eventually landed on the hot tarmac, I realized that this big crowd was made up of Chinese nationals waiting for the Chinese Special Representative to Africa who happened to travel on the same airplane as us.
I am saying this because it is clear to me that South Sudan is full of politics. It is about oil, economics, untapped agricultural potential, and of course cattle. Many issues are pressing in a country that gained its independence just a few months ago. To make matters worse, you have tribal and inter-ethnic conflicts, which are factors that even without a war are in themselves major challenges.
The Chinese are coming in because they have something at stake. And as I came to learn later in my mission, the Chinese government is also supporting humanitarian projects in South Sudan.
After we landed, we went straight to the EU compound. The good news is that as a Union we have a compound where many of our Member States are part of the same operation. So, instead of building separate embassies with all the ensuing costs, we are prioritizing economies of scale. Member States share guards, staff, buildings, and facilities. The Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection office is in the same compound as the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Italians, the Spanish and the Germans and of course the EU Delegation to the Republic of South Sudan. As the European Union, this is the way of the future, not only in South Sudan but elsewhere.
My first meeting was with other donors to better understand the situation and the needs on the ground. I later met with Lise Grande, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan who is an extremely competent and fast thinking woman. We had a good conversation on some of the difficulties and particular flashpoints that all humanitarian actors face.
I later dashed to the Ministry for Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management and I met with Honorable Deputy Minister Sabina Dario Okolong. Prior to becoming a Minister, Okolong was a governor in one of the western provinces in South Sudan. I took this opportunity to express to the Deputy Minister some of the concerns I had heard from our NGO partners. For starters, it appears that the police and other officials often harass NGOs. Most problematic is the fact that NGOs often experience extensive delays in getting travel visas. They can wait up to three months, which is clearly a hindrance when you are in the humanitarian business. Humanitarians must be able to travel to a hotspot quickly.
NGOs operating in South Sudan are asked to pay taxes on all kinds of things and rates are variable and far from clear. There is also undue pressure to place South Sudanese nationals in positions of responsibility. I believe this is not the way to go because it makes us unsure about the quality of the delivery of the aid. First and foremost, we are accountable to the people of South Sudan. Secondly, we are accountable to European taxpayers. I am in favor of putting qualified people, regardless of their nationality, in positions of responsibility. If there are qualified south Sudanese, with a university degree, it is even better. But to appoint unqualified people as deputy financial officers, it is simply not acceptable.
South Sudan is about to pass a law to regulate the work of civil society and non-governmental organizations. I am in favor of regulation, but it is important to make sure that the final regulation is conducive to creating a good operational environment. Regulation should not restrict humanitarian action or access. NGOs are a force for good and positive change. I met many experienced aid workers in South Sudan.
My message to Honorable Deputy Minister Sabina Dario Okolong is simple: the European Union works with highly respected partners and we are very rigorous in vetting their accounts, checking the quality of their work, and making sure they abide by the humanitarian principles and not get involved in politics. At the end of the day, we have a common objective: we both want the humanitarian relief pipeline, by land or air, to reach those who are most vulnerable and needy. We do not want corruption or other agendas to divert aid that is meant for civilians in South Sudan.
By Claus Sorensen
South Sudan December 2011
(Interviewed by Beatrice M. Spadacini, ECHO Regional Information Officer in Nairobi, Kenya.)